After 10 years of fighting drunk drivers, Alexa’s Team asks: What about pot?

As marijuana legalization looms, police are worried that impaired driving fatalities could spike

Part two of a series on how the tragic death of young girl changed the culture of drinking and driving in B.C. Read part one.

Impaired driving deaths have been cut in half over the past decade in B.C.

The drastic drop follows the introduction of harsh new rules in 2010, after four-year-old Alexa Middelaer was killed just a few hundred metres from her home in Delta in May 2008.

A police officer is now able to immediately ban a drunk driver from getting behind the wheel for 90 days, as well as hand them a $500 fine. Before, police could only stop someone with a 24-hour ban.

A squad of officers, called Alexa’s Team, has spent the past 10 years cracking down on drunk driving, bringing the 102 related deaths in 2008 down to 53 in 2016 (the latest year that numbers are available).

Officers join Alexa’s Team at an annual ceremoney. (Tracy Holmes/Peace Arch News)

Now, with the legalization of marijuana looming in Canada, officers who are part of Alexa’s Team are faced with a new set of challenges: How to investigate, charge and convict someone for drug-impaired driving.

Chief among the challenges is how to determine impairment, especially in a way that will hold up in court.

Sgt. Pat Davies leans forward onto a boardroom table in the Langley office of the province’s traffic division. He and the other 2,400 members of Alexa’s Team worry about how many lives could be lost before society understands how deadly drug-impaired driving is.

“We’re basically where we were societally, in the 1940s or the 1950s, with regards to liquor, now with regard to drugs,” says Davies.

“There’s no unanimity in the medical community in terms of what constitutes impairment and we don’t have any reliable instruments that will tell us ‘This person is impaired.’”

B.C. has proposed a 90-day driving ban for anyone caught high while driving. But there is currently no federally approved breathalyzer or saliva tests that police can use to conduct a roadside test. The federal marijuana legalization bill, though, would give police the power to demand blood and saliva samples.

Several companies, including Vancouver-based Cannabix Technologies, are in the process of developing one, but neither the finished product, nor approval for Ottawa, will come in time for legalization this summer.

“It takes years to develop,” Davies says. “It has to go through testing and once a particular instrument is chosen, it has to be put into legislation and then down the road we’ve got to arrange training…

“It’s an impossible calendar.”

Police view immediate 90-day administrative roadside prohibitions as key to keeping impaired drivers off the road. (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)

Instead, police will have to use physical signs to try to determine if a driver is high. But there isn’t a foolproof method to do that.

“So few police officers are trained as drug recognition experts to do field sobriety testing, to do drug recognition testing, that the capacity to deal with hit isn’t there,” says retired RCMP Insp. Ted Emanuels, who helped launch Alexa’s Team.

Despite calls for a delay from senators, Indigenous leaders and others, the Trudeau government has remained steadfast in its plan to legalize recreational marijuana by the summer.

Emanuels said U.S. states have defined limits for the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, the high-inducing chemical in marijuana, in a driver’s blood system.

In Colorado, where pot has been legal since 2012, the limit is five nanograms of THC.

State law allows police there to arrest anyone based on “observed impairment,” no matter the level of THC in their blood. The state does not have any breathalyzer-style technology to test for THC, instead relying on blood tests.

West Vancouver Police Sgt. Brock Harrington, who is on Alexa’s Team, believes bringing in, and enforcing, a similar limit in B.C. would have challenges.

“Can I be the side of the road and ask for somebody’s urine? How do you physically get the evidence?” Harrington says.

Testing blood or urine is currently the only way to test for THC, and could violate privacy laws.

“I don’t think the public understands how impairing marijuana is. It’s not your alcoholic stumbling drunk obnoxious,” Emanuels says.

“Alexa brought the awareness to the policing community over alcohol-impaired driving. It was the tipping point. We knew what we had [in that] and it allowed us to move forward and be successful.”


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

NorthIsle starts drilling in Pemberton Hills area after negotiating deal with Freeport

Mining industry one step closer to a revitalization after farm-out agreement

‘Police are ready’ for legal pot, say Canadian chiefs

But Canadians won’t see major policing changes as pot becomes legal

Port Hardy Fire Rescue’s open house a blazing hit

PHFR Lt. Harding explained that the organization is always looking for more recruits.

Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Nation drafts first phase of passive housing project

The housing project will have 96 residential units for low-income families.

North Island Seniors Housing Foundation requests land from Port Hardy Council

“The foundation members will be coming to council with more information at a future date.”

Naked man jumping into Toronto shark tank a ‘premeditated’ stunt: official

The man swam in a tank at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada

Trump: Saudi king ‘firmly denies’ any role in Khashoggi mystery

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is travelling to the Middle East to learn more about the fate of the Saudi national

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen dies at 65

Allen died in Seattle from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Tri-Port Midget Wild kick off season with gold medal performance at Nanaimo tournament

Chalk up another gold medal performance for the Tri-Port Midget Wild.

North Island Peewee Eagles shutout Comox Valley Chiefs at home

The North Island Peewee Eagles took no prisoners at the Chilton Regional… Continue reading

Nanaimo Clippers ‘clip’ North Island Atom Eagles’ wings on the road

The Nanaimo Clippers defeated the North Island Atom Eagles 6-4 on Saturday in Port McNeill.

Port McNeill municipal election candidate Derek Koel’s profile

“For over 18 years I have followed Port McNeill municipal politics and affairs closely,” Koel said.

Port Hardy municipal election candidate Don Kattler’s profile

“I believe it is time for new energy and change in our municipal government,” Kattler said.

Transport Canada to take new look at rules, research on school bus seatbelts

Canada doesn’t currently require seatbelts on school buses

Most Read